METHUEN — Monday night's City Council budget hearing can be summed up in the words of Councilor Steve Saba, who could be heard, just as the meeting went off cable TV, saying: "What the hell just happened?"
Their first in-person meeting since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, held in the Great Hall of the Searles Building, was short — lasting less than a half-hour — but caused a lot of confusion among councilors. By the end, they voted 5-4 to approve the budget, and then voted 8-1 to start a second round of budget hearings Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on Zoom.
Council Chairman James McCarty explained that a "procedural problem" had come up as to why the group should not actually hold a budget hearing Monday night as it had planned — and advertised — to do.
"We should have concluded after the first read," said McCarty, referring to the council's process of holding two budget reviews. The first one is called the "first read," and the second is, understandably, called the "second read."
Under the city ordinance, the council is supposed to adjourn out of the first read before starting the second read, explained City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino. Otherwise, he said, it would be like one, long first read instead of two, separate reads.
McCarty took the blame for it.
"I entertained the motion to recess," he said, referring to the final, first-read hearing last week. "If we wish to continue forward, as if it were all one meeting, we may get flagged at the end of the process."
One other option was to adjourn the first read and then start the second read — all on the same night.
But D'Agostino said that could be a conflict with the city charter, which says that the council can't hold the first and second reads on the same date.
"It's (legally) arguable," D'Agostino said. "It could be argued it's the same meeting if there's no adjournment. If you wanted to honor the spirit and intent of the ordinance and the charter, you should adjourn, and have another meeting. You should err on the side of caution so you don't come under criticism. It's not the same date, but it is the same meeting, unless you adjourn."
Not everyone was convinced it was necessary or prudent to delay the second reading of the budget.
"It's a procedural thing we've done multiple times," said Councilor Nicholas DiZoglio. "The first read concludes, the second read begins. The city is against the clock. Our budget, if this is voted on, starts Saturday."
But Saba, who said after the meeting that he was the person who raised the procedural issue with McCarty and D'Agostino late last week, pushed for adjournment until Tuesday night.
"I don't want to adjourn this meeting and start the same day," he said. "There was a lot of criticism on these (superior officer police) contracts, because that council adjourned and came back the same night. Let's adjourn tonight, start up again tomorrow night. Let's do it as correctly as possible and move forward."
As with many things this council does, or doesn't do, the problem can be traced back to September 2017, when the city council at the time approved the police Superior Officers union contract after doing the first and second reads on the same night.
Those votes, with approval by then-Mayor Stephen Zanni, led to a contract that would have given salaries of up to $400,000 for police captains. D'Agostino noted that the Inspector General, in its investigation of the salary controversy, said the council should not have done both reads on the same night.
"The Inspector General found a violation of both the charter and the city ordinance on the votes on the collective bargaining agreement," he said. "I say it's the same type of violation."
McCarty made a motion to approve the city budget — as it stands after the first round of cuts and review. The vote nearly failed.
Voting to approve the budget were councilors Saba, McCarty, Mike Simard and Joel Faretra. Voting against approval were councilors D.J. Beauregard, DiZoglio, Jessica Finocchiaro and Eunice Zeigler.
Saba said after the meeting that if the budget had been rejected, it would have thrown the process into further disarray, forcing the council to vote on another, one-month budget instead of the whole year.